World War Z: An Oddly Prophetic Take on Epidemiology

I’m still not sure why I never got around to reading World War Z by Max Brooks.  I had read his previous book The Zombie Survival Guide which is set in the same world and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  However, despite my love of the horror genre, it took me until now to get around to reading the more famous of Max Brooks’ zombie books. I recently finally got around to it and find myself being all the more horrified by it in the context of current events.

The book neatly follows the three emotions of fear.  The first section of the book focuses on building dread and suspense by showing small glimpses of the undead menace.  It also shows how the pandemic could spread so widely before anyone could get control over it building that sense of inevitable doom even more.  

The second section (called the “Great Panic” in the book) gives us the terror of undead hordes overwhelming humanity.  It also shows us some of the terrible things that originate from humans trying to survive in such conditions.  Some of the greatest depravity comes from the desperation of people who were nowhere near the undead but were losing the fight against the elements. Several personal stories are told of people who just barely escaped multiple situations, leaving the reader to imagine how many were in similar straits and never made it out.

The final part gives us the horror of watching humanity reclaim the world.  It focuses on how many foundations of our society had been removed.  A part of that is showing how previously declining powers had taken advantage of the situation to come out ahead on the world stage in the end.  Another area of focus is the psychological toll on the survivors with specific attention brought to the fact that being either near or at the end of the conflict was the breaking point for some mentally robust veterans.

The prophetic aspects of the book come from reading the dread building portion in the context of COVID-19.  Many of the ways that COVID spread were eerily mirrored by this book written over a decade before the real-life pandemic.  One aspect that caught my attention was the uncertainty of what measures would actually be effective at containing the spread.  In the book, this manifests as things such as not knowing if it could be spread through the air and false cures being pushed by people looking to make a buck.  This mirrors how in real life people weren’t sure what face masks would actually be effective and how people pushed false cures while looking to make a buck.

What especially caught my attention was the number of people who knew they were infected but purposely avoided quarantine procedures out of irrational desperation.  In both the book and in real life, there was a significant number of people who knew they were carrying the virus and posed a risk for spreading it further but tried to get through quarantine anyway.  In a manner that still perfectly mirrored real life, some of them made it through quarantine and infected populations that had thought themselves safe. Luckily, COVID is not nearly as bad as a zombie plague, but it is unnerving to think how much worse things could have been. This serves to strike the horror emotion in a way the author could never have intended.

Moving away from uncomfortable real life parallels, that long incubation period actually served to solve a common complaint of the zombie apocalypse genre.  It is often said that a virus that spreads through bites would not be contagious enough to spread to the point where there were true hordes to be fought.  This book details a relatively long incubation period and at one point a doctor states that under the right circumstances it could lay dormant for months.  To exacerbate this, attention is brought to the concept of infected people being used to feed the underground organ market.  Through this venue, the infection is quickly spread worldwide and allows the super spreaders to lay dormant until the infection starts appearing in urban centers all over the world preventing the option of limiting the infection to a single area. It still strains believability a bit, but not nearly as bad as the idea of it only spreading through bites.

The book does suffer from a few other unrealistic details such as deploying anti-tank weapons to what is clearly an anti-infantry situation.  However, I think the unrealistic aspects are allowable as necessary for making the genre happen.  After all, a supernatural horror story that is made too realistic will lose what makes it a supernatural horror.  If a reader can suspend their disbelief for a moment, they can appreciate the detailed take on a classic genre and how well the atmospheric aspects are rendered.

From a narrative aspect, this book utilizes one of my favorite techniques.  Some stories are simply too broad in scope to try and tell them from a small selection of POVs.  This book makes no attempt to limit the number of POV characters it uses.  In fact, most of them are not returned to after their part is done.  This allows the author to quickly switch to radically different perspectives to show unrelated parts of the story that are critical for understanding the wider picture but have no connection in terms of the individuals involved.  For the most part, the only characters that return for multiple POV segments only do so because they were involved with multiple key details that make it worth returning to them.

I have not seen the movie and I have heard underwhelming things about it, but the book is fantastic.  It is a must-read for fans of the zombie genre.  Fans of other subgenres of horror might find themselves benefiting from looking at how this story is told.  I can easily imagine the format being adjusted to fit other styles of horror. It is fully deserving of being considered a classic horror novel.

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